Remember friend as you walk by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you will surely be
Prepare thyself to follow me.Common Headstone Epitaph
On October 31st we celebrate Halloween in the United States. Halloween, in its current form, has its origins in the Catholic celebration of All Hallows Eve with the Celtic tradition of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
For the Celts, Samhain marked the transition from the harvest season to the winter. This was also at this time that the Celts believed that the boundary between the living and the dead thinned and the ghost of those that passed could rejoin us on earth.
All Hallows Eve is the Catholic celebration the occurs on the night before All Saints Day. All Saints Day was established to honor all the saints and martyrs that have passed. The festivities for All Hallows Eve eventually took on many of the same traditions as Samhain, including its focus on bonfires and the costumes of saints, angels, and devils.(1) It was through this blending of these two traditions that we eventually ended up today’s Halloween.
Halloween’s roots have always had something to do with celebrating and connecting with the dead. The editors at History.com state, “It began as a Celtic end-of-summer festival during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.”(1)
It is in this liminal space between earth and the spirit world where we find the inspiration for today’s poems.
“The Unquiet Grave” by Anonymous
“The wind doth blow today, my love, And a few small drops of rain; I never had but one true-love, In cold grave she was lain. “I’ll do as much for my true-love As any young man may; I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave For a twelvemonth and a day.” The twelvemonth and a day being up, The dead began to speak: “Oh who sits weeping on my grave, And will not let me sleep?” “’T is I, my love, sits on your grave, And will not let you sleep; For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips, And that is all I seek.” “You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips, But my breath smells earthy strong; If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips, Your time will not be long. “’T is down in yonder garden green, Love, where we used to walk, The finest flower that e’re was seen Is withered to a stalk. “The stalk is withered dry, my love, So will our hearts decay; So make yourself content, my love, Till God calls you away.”
What I enjoy about this poem is that it is a conversation between loved ones. One person is on earth and the other one has passed. Through this dialogue we explore the emotional grief that exists when we lose someone. It also speculates that those who have passed would probably like us to continue on with our life here. It is such an interesting conversation, and one that fits nicely within this poem.
“Spirits of the Dead” by Edgar Allan Poe
I Thy soul shall find itself alone ’Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone— Not one, of all the crowd, to pry Into thine hour of secrecy. II Be silent in that solitude, Which is not loneliness—for then The spirits of the dead who stood In life before thee are again In death around thee—and their will Shall overshadow thee: be still. III The night, tho’ clear, shall frown— And the stars shall look not down From their high thrones in the heaven, With light like Hope to mortals given— But their red orbs, without beam, To thy weariness shall seem As a burning and a fever Which would cling to thee for ever. IV Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish, Now are visions ne’er to vanish; From thy spirit shall they pass No more—like dew-drop from the grass. V The breeze—the breath of God—is still— And the mist upon the hill, Shadowy—shadowy—yet unbroken, Is a symbol and a token— How it hangs upon the trees, A mystery of mysteries!
The first two stanzas of this poem really stand out for me. It seems like Poe is reassuring the reader that when we die we are not alone. Instead, we join those that have gone before us. Poe then continues with speculation on the process of moving from the earthly realm to the spirit realm. Poe then ends with the line “A mystery of mysteries”. I think is probably the best line to use to conclude a poem like this.
“Hallowe’een” by Marion Ethel Hamilton
Leaves are falling, and boys are calling-- They will come with lanterns tonight And grin through the panes; Come with yellow lanterns, And weird red dresses blowing In the warm October winds That will soon be bringing rains. Leaves are falling, and boys are calling, And witches will be scudding On their brooms like a bird. I shall hide up in my attic, And start at creaking rafters, Shudder at strange laughters, And cry, unheard.
This final poem is less about the passing of the spirit and more about the tradition of Halloween. When I read this poem, I wonder if Hamilton is actually scared at Halloween or just getting into the spirit of it all.
This poem seems to have a lighter feel than the other two even if Hamilton does end up hiding in the attic.
- Anonymous, “The Unquiet Grave” can be found in The Top 500 Poems edited by William Harmon
- Marion Ethel Hamiltion’s “Hallowe’een” was retrieved from Poerty Foundation’s Magazine Archive
- Edgar Allan Poe’s “Spirits of the Dead” can be found in The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
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